Football: Nine hold the line for Boro

Southampton 3 Middlesbrough 3
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The Independent Online
AT THE end of this extraordinary match the referee, Paul Alcock, was immediately surrounded by Southampton stewards as irate Middlesbrough players approached the beleaguered official. "That's the first time we've ever had to do that here," a security man said later. Alcock, pushed over by Paolo Di Canio at Hillsborough last month, sent off two Middlesbrough players during a second half at The Dell which featured all six goals, including an injury-time equaliser for Middlesbrough by Gianluca Festa with his side reduced to nine men.

Both managers were critical of Alcock's performance, Middlesbrough's Bryan Robson understandably more so. "There wasn't a bad foul in the match," he said despairingly of a total of eight yellow cards, which included two for Robbie Mustoe, and a straight red for Phil Stamp's apparent verbal attack on Alcock in the closing few minutes.

With the benefit of televisual hindsight, the match seems more disfigured by the players' own indiscipline or inability than indiscriminacy on Alcock's part. If that is the case, rather than blame the referee for spoiling the contest perhaps the managers should blame the rules. Neither of Mustoe's two cautions deserved the punishment that he, his team and ultimately the paying spectators suffered for the last 30 minutes (although some might say it was more of an even contest after that). Both were for fouls on Mark Hughes, the first after Mustoe was tricked by Hughes' clever play and the second when Hughes came fractionally first in a race for the ball.

As for Stamp's tirade - seen if not heard by Match of the Day cameras - if referees carried microphones, as they do in many sports, players would think twice about what they said.

Dave Jones, whose side remain bottom but have now gone four games unbeaten, also felt Mustoe was unlucky but made reference to the mandate that referees have to adhere to. "Yellow cards just don't mean anything any more," he said, and you understood what he meant. Unfortunately for all concerned, with the stakes being raised every season they mean more now than they ever have before.

Jones was reasonably upbeat despite the fact that his side proved unable to hold out for the last five minutes against nine men after Egil Ostenstad's rumbustious drive had seemed certain to give the Saints a precious three points. Prior to that Paul Gascoigne put himself in the frame for England selection at the end of the week with a beautifully executed free-kick and one or two eye-catching runs that suggested that some of his old pace had returned.

That was the start of 45 minutes of mayhem: Ken Monkou equalised for Southampton; Mustoe was ordered off; Claus Lundekvam headed ludicrously past his own goalkeeper but James Beattie equalised again for the Saints; Stamp's dismissal after Ostenstad's goal seemed to put the tin lid on it but ultimately it was a mistake on his own goal-line by Matt Le Tissier, who had made a generous contribution to the afternoon's entertainment, that cost Southampton the points.

Goals: Gascoigne (47) 0-1; Monkou (61) 1-1; Lundekvam (og, 66) 1-2; Beattie (82) 2-2; Ostenstad (85) 3-2; Festa (90) 3-3.

Southampton (4-5-1): Jones; Hiley, Monkou, Lundekvam, Benali (Beattie, 77); Ripley, Palmer, Hughes, Bridge, Le Tissier; Ostenstad. Substitutes not used: Dodd, Kachloul, Williams, Moss (gk).

Middlesbrough (5-3-2): Beresford; Fleming, Cooper, Vickers, Festa, Gordon; Mustoe, Gascoigne, Townsend; Ricard (Stamp, 69), Deane. Substitutes not used: Beck, Blackmore, Summerbell, Schwarzer (gk).

Referee: P Alcock (Sevenoaks).

Bookings: Southampton: Palmer, Mustoe 2, Monkou, Hughes. Middlesbrough: Gascoigne, Townsend, Ricard. Sent off: Middlesbrough: Mustoe, Stamp.

Man of the Match: Hughes.

Attendance: 15,202.